My friend loves the thrill of slot machines. With Bud Light in hand, she canvases the floor in anticipation of fabulous entertainment. She sits down at a machine that looks shiny (seed selection), makes her wager and hits the button every so often. She calls it “feeding the machine”.
She sits back to wait for the show, cold one in hand. She may take notice of the person next to her maniacally hitting the button and swearing, but it only adds to the entertainment value. She knows she’s not in control, but she’s confident that if she bides her time, it’s gonna pay off.
When she “wins big” (a.k.a. $20), her joy cannot be contained. When she doesn’t, she smiles and goes on to the next.
Meanwhile, this time of year, my fellow plant nerds blitz the blogosphere, chronicling the joy of seed starting. Stories laden with cute pictures of 72-cell trays, tiny seeds and cheerful packets are accompanied by tips and tricks that make it sound “so easy, you can do this too”.
Then, the grand finale. Perfect images of hardy seedlings ready to take on the world and transform into breathtaking floriferous specimens of beauty. Sigh.
So, I’m just going to lay it out there for you.
It’s really not that pretty.
Well, it can be. But no one really talks about the epic failures, frustrations and stupid moments that make you laugh out loud.
No one posts pictures of lame trays with ten percent germination, fungus gnats and dampened off moppets that will never reach their full potential.
When I do manage to turn out a tray of Instagram-worthy flower babies, I feel like a million bucks.
In lieu of perfection, I choose to share the discovery that rose like a swarm of aphids from the ashes of my failings.
Seed starting is a lot like playing the slots.
Most mistakes that lead to disaster are the consequence of my overwhelming desire to do everything I can to make that tiny seed grow into something breathtaking.
I now realize that a seed doesn’t really need me. At all.
It really wants to be left alone. Preferably, outside.
But here I am, with my sterile soil-free mix and fluorescent lighting and worm castings and heat mats… It goes on. I am the maniac hitting the button at the casino, bombarding an innocent seed with every input in my arsenal – when all it needs to do it’s job is the minimum wager.
Seeds have been starting themselves for millennia.
The seed wants to grow. Get out of the way.
As a result of my epiphany (and insistence that seeds should indeed grow on my schedule), I have learned to mimic the environment each variety does best in naturally.
This can be tricky. Many seeds don’t want to grow on a 75-degree heat mat under a light. That might be comfortable for a tomato or pepper, but many flowers prefer 50-60ish-degree temps. For these varieties (ranunculus, larkspur, and poppies, for example) I close a few heat vents and use a cheap digital thermometer to create a few cool zones.
I’ve learned not to trust heat mats without thermostats and double check soil temperature with a digital meat thermometer. This is the one I use.
I check on things once or twice a day to make sure they don’t dry out. On Sundays, everyone gets a meal (organic kelp and fish fertilizer). It’s also a great idea to run an oscillating fan on low speed. Stagnant air can be an invitation for diseases, like damping off.
Hence, my pro tip of the week:
Don’t be the maniac at the casino. Be the cool girl with the Bud Light.
Your seeds will thank you for it.